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October 2017

"Great Britain, Europe and the world after Brexit. Views from London"


This debate was a private event for Institut Montaigne's members as part of a newly international cycle. A serie of discussions about international topics between foreign leading figures will be organised every month at the Institut Montaigne. 

with Robin Niblett, director, Chatham House
and Nick Butler, professor, King’s College
The discussion was chaired by Dominique Moïsi, senior counsellor of Institut Montaigne

What does Brexit mean?

Brexit caused two types of reactions: on the one hand, it was perceived as a deep shock not only for the United Kingdom itself, but also for the EU and democracy broadly speaking; on the other, it was argued that nothing really happened, as the United Kingdom never truly belonged in the EU. The coming EU summit in Bratislava will be a good opportunity to see which path the EU is about to take. It seems we find ourselves in a new “phoney war”, where things have started to change but where it is hard to know in which direction they are heading.

Brexit should not be considered as a sign of hostility towards the EU and its Member States, rather it reveals hostility towards the European bureaucracy and Brussels. However, the referendum vote reveals a deep cleavage between the old and the young generations within the United Kingdom. The older one feels nostalgic about the UK’s glorious past as a world power and sees the European project as a failure: with no common security policy, no common approach to tackle the refugee crisis, and no economic results.

What’s next?

Four scenarios for the development of the relationship between the UK and the EU can be identified:

1. The UK will pursue its development on its own, while the EU will do the same on its side.

2. Brexit will in reality never come about because of its complexity and because of the administrative burden.

3. The EU will adopt radical changes by breaking austerity, by becoming more independent from the German leadership, and by renouncing to the membership.

4. The EU will change by integrating to the core with a truly efficient common parliament, a common defence policy and a more protectionist economic policy.
At an international level, four risks result from Brexit:

1. The Brexit referendum made populism legitimate and is reinforcing the development of populist parties across Europe with strong national leaders who focus on their people first (Putin and Erdogan being the model of this type of leader).

2. The Transatlantic cooperation is in danger and is a matter of concern for the USA: how will it be able to manage without the United Kingdom in the EU? Will NATO be enough? Will it imply a rebalancing towards Asia? It is a clear momentum for international affairs.

3. Brexit will create a loss in terms of reference points for the EU. Political leaders will be afraid of being bolder and this will lead to a rise of nationalism. Although UK was the “awkward partner”, it was very mobilised on global matters.

4. In that troubled context, the challenge for the EU will be to act as a force of stability, while UK leaders will have to take their full responsibilities. Amongst the broader international problems Brexit reveals, the question of the coordination on regulation (TTIP), the fact that there will be more space for Russian mischief and that the scope for European enlargement becomes even more difficult are issues that need to be urgently addressed.
However, at the end the UK cannot escape its geographical and strategic situation: the Churchillian dream is gone, the EU remains its first partner, and the Anglo-US relationship does not represent a real alternative. 

Various remarks

- A positive side from the Brexit could be the reinforcement of the French-German relationship, in defence and security policy in particular. Accordingly, the UK will have to think the EU more seriously and might end up feeling more European in the end.
- In the next decade, the UK government will have to prove that leaving was the right choice. It will use trade deals to emphasize the EU as the counterpoint of non-success. However, when it comes to security, the UK will have to build an efficient cooperation with its European partners.
- The great difficulty of Brexit is that the UK administration did not have a plan at all. It could take months until they find a coherent position to start the six negotiations that they will have to face:  

1. The divorce negotiation (art.50)

2. The negotiation of the future partnership with the EU.

3. The transition towards this new partnership

4. The negotiations to join the WTO

5. The negotiations between the UK and its key partners

6. The negotiations to cooperate with the EU regarding security and defence policy
- In a way, the British people decided to vote « yes » to the question: can we be better alone than with the others? The answer history will give to this question will be of tremendous importance for the future of the EU

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